When I was growing up, this was the best thing ever to find in my lunch box. At first glance, they appear hip, convenient, healthy and -- as clearly noted on the box -- full of fantastic added nutrition for growing kids, as evidenced by taglines such as "An Excellent Source of Calcium."
Now that I'm a father to 4-year-old twins, I decided to closer inspect the packaging of the Lunchables box of Mess With Your Mouth: Turkey & American Stackers. Turns out, the good folks at Oscar Meyer have done some development on their Lunchables since I was a kid. The package proudly proclaimed that besides the lunchtime turkey goodness, kids would also find a sugar-packed CapriSun Fruit Punch, a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and (my favorite) the "Sour Tongue Teasing Fizz" inside. In case you're wondering, this is candy that you sprinkle on your meal or in your mouth before each bite or as a chaser.
On the back of the box is a total list of the ingredients. (The emphasis is mine):
Roast White Turkey - Cured - Smoke Flavor Added* - White Turkey, Water, Potassium Lactate, Modified Corn Starch, Contains Less Than 2% of Salt**, Dextrose, Carrageenan, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Erythorbate (Made from Sugar), Smoke Flavor, Sodium Nitrite, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Pasteurized Prepared American Cheese Product -Milk, Whey, Milk Protein Concentrate, Milkfat, Sodium Citrate, Salt, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid As A Preservative, Oleoresin Paprika, Annatto (Color), Enzymes, Cheese Culture, With Starch Added For Slice Separation, Chocolate Sandwich Cookies -Sugar, Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), High Oleic Canola Oil and/Or Palm Oil and/Or Canola Oil, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), High Fructose Corn Syrup, Cornstarch, Leavening (Baking Soda, Calcium Phosphate, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate), Salt, Soy Lecithin (Emulsifier), Artificial Flavor, Chocolate, Crackers - Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid), Soybean Oil, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Salt, Leavening (Baking Soda, Calcium Phosphate), Whey (from Milk), Soy Lecithin (Emulsifier).
*Smoke Flavor recipes vary, but typically include salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, propylene glycol, caramel color, natural hickory smoke flavor, a blend of natural spices and dextrose (corn sugar) and in some cases, powdered tar, charcoal and ash.
**Total sodium added to this one lunchbox is close to my personal daily intake as a 180-pound adult.
Left out of the ingredients list above are the components for the mysterious "Sour Tongue Tasting Fizz," for which I actually had some difficulty finding an ingredient list.
So while it's apparent that leaving Lunchables out of your child's back-to-school lunch routine is probably a good idea, there are other components of your kid's meals that you should consider.
For example, in her book Lunch Wars, Amy Kalafa shares some scary facts about school lunches:
• In America, the government's School Nutrition Dietary Assessment has concluded that the vast majority of schools in America exceed USDA guidelines for the quantities of saturated fat, total fat and sodium in school lunches. Between kindergarten and 12th grade, the average child will eat about 3,000 of these school lunches.
• The excess beef and poultry that the USDA gives for free to our school systems (albeit paid for by your taxes) are an even lower food grade meat than fast-food chains like McDonald's, and in the past 10 years, the USDA paid $145 million for pet food grade "hen-meat" for school meal programs.
• $1.00 is the nationwide average spent per school lunch (and $0.25 of that is spent on milk). So with just $0.75 left to spare, it's easy to see why many school cafeterias serve affordable, high-calorie, low-nutrient density foods like Pop Tarts, chocolate milk and pizza.
• Bottled water from vending machines can be a significant revenue source for schools, so free water (to keep your kid hydrated and satiate their appetite so they eat less junk food) is not even available in many cases.
• Kids who do not buy their lunch at school are healthier and perform better academically, while kids who buy lunch at school are more likely to be obese (and yes, it is likely that if "homemade" meals such as Lunchables were factored out of the equation of kids who do not buy their lunch at school, this contrast would become even more apparent).
If you want to see more disturbing facts about the average school lunch program, I'd recommend you watch the free online episodes of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which is especially disturbing when Jamie discovers that an entire classroom of 6-year-olds cannot even identify the name of any of the fresh vegetables presented to them.
So what can you do about it?
You can pack your kid's lunches, and you can do it the smart way.
In Part 2 of this series, I'm going to give you 3 simple steps to creating a healthy lunch for your kid (or for you!), and also give you some sample healthy lunch box meal recipes to get you started.
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His latest book is "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body: A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape."